Buffering the Effect of Pregnancy on the PI

This morning between unpleasant tasks I was engaged in, I noticed a comment from Maria on my last post (about dealing with pregnancies in one’s lab group)  which went thusly:

My first postdoc was pregnant when I hired her, though she didn’t tell me at the time. I also freaked out with the door closed, and then also did all the right things–arranging for 3 months leave (she would not take less), keeping her project moving while she was on leave, and letting her work part time on return. Then, two weeks after returning, she quit because she couldn’t keep things together at home and in lab. I do know that keeping women in science is absolutely predicated on making it possible to combine family and academia, and keeping women in science is honestly very important to me. As such I know that I just have to swallow hard and move on. But the amount of time and money I wasted doing the right thing is really embittering and though I know I must, I am having trouble keeping things cool as I interview for new postdocs. I am only in my second year on the TT and this situation is really hard.

I whipped off a response- because it was so much more fun than what I was otherwise doing this morning- which succintly summarizes… said … Shit happens, regardless of the gender of the people you hire.

But Whimple- that commenter I love to hate, or hate to love… or WHATEVER… said not so fast:

Nevertheless, Maria has a valid point. She did the right thing and got badly burned because of it. This is an opportunity for her institution to step up to the plate and refund the lost startup cash to her and also to extend her tenure clock by a suitable amount as compensation. If institutions were willing to bear this risk instead of leaving it all on the backs of vulnerable (non-tenured) individuals, there’d be a lot less hesitation (the illegality of it notwithstanding) to hire women in prime childbearing years.

So- I started writing a response to Whimple, but it should just be a post. So here goes (and I know you are all going to hate me for this):

Whimple- To me there is ‘badly’ and there is ‘badly’- having some nutty AR person infiltrate your lab, burn it down- that’s being burned badly. Having a postdoc give confidential data to the direct competition- or making up data – that’s my definition of ‘badly’ burned. To me having a postdoc quit after 9 months…. sucks, yes…. but ‘badly’ burned… all depends on how that affects downstream events.

Ok, that was my knee-jerk response.

But then I thought about it for 2 seconds and realized that Whimple almost certainly has a point for the individual junior faculty member. If certain PIs are more likely to attract female postdocs who are going to require time off for childbearing- then perhaps this should be institutionally supported in order to reduce unstated discrimination in hiring those women in the first place (because of such experiences that happened in Maria’s case, that perhaps make her less likely to hire a woman again in the future) . Maybe the right thing to do is to be proactive for any faculty who hire a woman of childbearing age… should institutions provide some sort of incentive (in $$) for faculty who hire women … or women who become pregnant during their training? Should the institution pick up the employee’s salary/benefits for some period of time (6 months comes into my head) around childbearing- to keep them in the pipeline, to buffer the effect this has on individual PIs? Maybe there could be some special type of NIH support for this… if keeping women in basic science and academia is really a priority there…

But- one more thing- and this is specific advice for Maria- and Whimple’s got it dead right on this one- I’m generally in favor of asking for institutional support for good reasons like this (Whimple has kicked my ass on this more than once, and it has gotten me months of postdoc salary support).  If you think this event has had a detrimental impact on your lab- then go ahead and ask for financial support, or increased time on your tenure clock. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll tell ya, someone might tell you NO…. but goodness, you just never know when the powers that be might totally agree with you and say yes!

Oh god, enough procrastinating. I have to go back to doing all that paperwork nonsense that I despise.

Talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

After one of my last posts, I got busy at my real job and slacked off on reading the comments at the end there. This weekend I was going back over the list, and catching up with what had been said … and I came upon this comment left by commenter KT:

I am a TT faculty, am a family-comes-first person and have been supportive for students and postdocs having problems. And I understand there is no good time to have a baby and it is not easy to wear many hats. BUT, I also think it is unfair for a TT faculty to support pregnancy and shortened work to take care of babies. TT are in the tough battle and all the lab member count, since the size of the lab is small. Losing one postdoc for 4 months for maternity leave and some decreased productivity for 1-2 years… This is a gigantic loss.

Getting pregnant is something one can choose, which is different from getting sick. So I would support my students and postdocs as a person, but there would be some “illegal” and “politically incorrect” feeling I could not suppress. I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

Since I read this one, it has been bothering me. Let me be clear, it is not the first time that I’ve heard this kind of thing. Years ago I was at a seminar for women in science- and the presenter said something along the vein that choice projects would be taken away from the people who couldn’t devote the necessary time to them- and people with kids were explicitly mentioned.

Anyway- I’m getting away from the comment up there. I’m just going to take this apart one sentence at a time. First- I’m less interested in what people claim they are, and much more interested in how they act. Lots of people proclaim themselves to be family-friendly, hell- we’ve got a whole political party that has co-opted that particular mantra, but when push comes to shove it is really just empty chatter.  So, I see the proclamation up there in this comment- but the rest of the comment seems to me decidedly un-family supportive. Please remember, for the most part such comments, and the actions that can logically follow, affect the 50% of the population that actually bear the children.  And it is attitudes like this that cause women to run through the nearest exit from academic science.

Furthermore, working people from all walks of life and all different careers have kids! How is the situation of a TT faculty member losing a female lab member temporarily to maternity leave different from a small business owner (or any business for that matter) losing an employee to maternity leave?? We TT people are not unique in this burden. And I’m guessing that at some point in your career you have had, or will have some slacker student- who spends a ton of face time in the lab… but gets almost nothing done for whatever reason… totally unrelated to their childbearing status. How will you treat such a person… in relation to the super-productive postdoc who needs 12 weeks off to care for a child?  Is it FAIR that one of your projects be delayed because one of your lab members needs time off after child-birth (and these are almost exclusively women doing the extended leaves)??? Nope. Is life fair? Nope. Are us people who claim to be family friendly going to sacrifice a little bit to make the workplace more family friendly- PROBABLY, YES.

But it is this part of the comment that really made me sit up and swallow hard:

Getting pregnant is something one can choose, which is different from getting sick. So I would support my students and postdocs as a person, but there would be some “illegal” and “politically incorrect” feeling I could not suppress. I would be either a “victim” of their happiness or someone who was forced to be involved with their trouble.

Holy Cow. I’m normally pretty mild mannered- but this comment actually made me mad. I mean WHAT THE HELL!!  First, pregnancy is not always a choice. People have unprotected sex or birth control failures from time to time. These things happen, and assuming a ‘choice’ was made, and putting the blame on someone for being in a circumstance that might be temporarily inconvenient to you as the PI changes nothing and helps no one.

Secondly, I very much doubt that people who have this attitude are applying it equally to the men who work for them as to women who work for them (and it would be similarly disturbing if all people who had a normal life including children were discriminated against by employers… )- simply because comments about caring for babies that follow in the comment itself up there- and this disproportionately still falls on women.  Men have kids and families too…Perhaps folks with this attitude  don’t realize, although it seems bloody obvious to me, that comments like this are screamingly discriminatory toward women.

Third, you as the employer can have any ‘illegal’ or ‘politically incorrect’ feeling that you like. But, you had better learn to suppress those feelings, just like you can control all different kinds of urges, or you may find yourself the subject of a lawsuit. That lawsuit and it’s downstream events will probably cost you a lot more time, productivity, and damage to your career than doing the right thing in the first place.

Grad School, Academic Careers, and Babies…

I saw this post over at Isis place this morning, and I have to say I had a couple of strong feelings about it. For those of you that have not read it- commenter Fia forwards questions she’s been asked about the intersection of motherhood and academia:

* Is it reasonable to have children during grad school?
* I found out I am pregnant, we want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should I have an abortion?
* Should I wait until later in my career to have children?
* I just finished grad school and am pregnant now. If I have the child, what are my chance on the job market a year later?

Yikes, that’s a lot of material to answer. But, as you all know I have two children and I’m an academic scientist- so I’ll throw my hard-learned lessons out there in case you are interested.  A little background first, my older daughter was born while I was doing my thesis work, and my younger daughter was born while I was doing my post-doctoral training, so I’ve been in all the different possible stages of motherhood and academic careerdom. From my perspective, I tended to worry a lot about how I would care for young children while in the early parts of my training, just assuming that things would get easier as the children grew older. I can tell you that as the children get older things don’t really get easier- but the kinds of tasks that you are doing for and with the children change, but they don’t lessen in amount or time commitment (with the possible exception of when the kids go to college themselves, but we are not there yet). Anyway, I digress, let’s start with this:

* Is it reasonable to have children during grad school?

Hmm. Well, as someone who had children during grad school, I’d have to say yes. Is it stressful? Yes. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it reasonable? I suppose that depends on your definition of reasonable.  In my experience people who are highly motivated to do their best at both these tasks, can handle this.

* I found out I am pregnant, we want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should I have an abortion?

WOW, just WOW. To me the decision whether or not to bear a child and start a family should be based on whether or not one wants to be a parent. Period. If the answer to that question is yes, then you just figure out how to work around everything else. Is it going to be tough? Yes. Is it going to be stressful? Yes. Can it be done- OH FOR SURE!

* Should I wait until later in my career to have children?

Having kids and an academic career isn’t easy no matter what stage you choose to have the children, unless perhaps, you wait until after you have tenure. In my opinion and experience, there is no perfect time to have children- vanishingly rare are the cases where you can plan exactly what events you want in your life and have them happen exactly when you want them to happen. Waiting until later in one’s career, like maybe after you have tenure,  comes with a whole different set of problems, including, but not limited to the fact, that this will likely take you into your 40s when fertility declines precipitously. So, decide what your priorities are- if being a parent is a priority in your life- … then learn to live with the fact that there is no perfect timing for this.

* I just finished grad school and am pregnant now. If I have the child, what are my chance on the job market a year later?

First, it is totally impossible to know what your chances are on the job market are a year in advance- REGARDLESS of whether or not you have children. Second and more importantly, your chances on the job marked should be related only to your qualifications and past performance on the job, and not to whether or not you have children! Goodness. I’ve never EVER heard a man say something like that, and it pains me to see that we women still feel we should have this conversation.

Any more questions?

(and Fia, I’m totally and completely hurt that I wasn’t included in your list of sciencey-parenty-academic type goddesses… sniff, …. SOB)

The Academic Job Season… it happens every year…

For those of you out looking for a tenure track academic job- I’m re-posting many of my previous posts on finding an academic position. This seems like a good time of year for this, as ads for academic jobs should be really rolling out now and for the next several months.

I have collected all of my previous posts on looking for an academic job here.  And you can find additional things up under the Academic Job Applications tab at the top right of this page. (Drugmonkey and Comrade Physioprof at Drugmonkey at both new and old sites also have many posts on this subject for anyone who is interested, you can search both these blogs)

A few words about the academic job search climate. We are not running a search right now, so I don’t have a good feeling for how this will go this year. Last year, though, was terrible for the applicants. There seemed to me to be a huge supply of applicants, and really good ones, for very few jobs. The downturn in the economy really affected hiring at academic institutions and lots of searches were either canceled, or initiated and put on indefinite hold, and I’m betting that this TT job scarcity will continue for a while.

My advice if you plan to go out this year- give it everything you’ve got, apply for every job you can, you are in a MUCH stronger position if you have $$ of your own to bring with you, … and make a contingency plan if you can… (if you can sit another year where you are, make a backup plan right now!!)…

It seems like such a big bummer to write that…but it is as it is.

On realizing I’m not Martha Stewart, and that is perfectly OK with me.

I had a fun exchange of comments with an anonymous commenter on my last post- my to-do list for the fall.  Apparently I’ve fooled some of you people who read this blog into thinking that I have it all together.  As Comrade Physioprof would say Hahahahahahhhhaaaaaa!!!

Anonymous commenter offered this:

Your life is nuts? You certainly conceal it in your posts!

I am giving myself an hour to finish my teaching statement, and then I am going home to back 25 cupcakes. And then I will spend the evening shopping for “goody bags.” Now *that* is nuts.

You all know that I have two children, who are now 7 and 11, so I’ve had a little time to adjust to my double life as a mom and an academic researcher on the tenure track. But Anonymous’ comment.. gave me a flashback to a time when I was attempting to be super-duper junior faculty, Martha Stewart,  the perfect parent, the ideal wife, and social worker to the universe, all at the same time. Let me first say- I don’t recommend trying this. Continue reading